The shawm


The shawm used to be a very popular instrument from the Middle Age to the beginning of the Baroque era. Its name comes from the Latin calamus, which means "reed": chalemie (France), schalmei (Netherlands), Schalmey (Germany), chirimia (Spain), ciaramella (Italy). It belongs to the large family of double reed instruments, which still includes many parents in popular music : chirimia (Mexico), suona (China), zurla (former Yugoslavia), sruni (Java), ghaita or rhaita (North Africa), zurna (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia). All of them have in common the following elements: a double reed, sometimes a pirouette, a conical bore and a large bell.

The shawm in the Middle Ages

The woodwind instruments with double reed and conical bore were probably already known to the Etruscans in the 5th century BC, and then also to the Romans. However, for a long period of the Middle Ages, we find no trace of them in Europe, while they remain documented in the Near East, Turkey, India and the Far East. From the 13th century onwards, representations showed them again playing in small groups (three to four musician), with bombardes (longer shawms) and/or slide trumpets. These successful formations composed of "high (loud) instruments" are also called "alta capella". At the end of the Middle Ages, they were the guarantors of a virtuoso music (signals, dances, polyphonies) that could be heard both in the city and in the courtyards.

The shawm in the 16th and 17th centuries

The two shawms presented in the mim's Minstrels in 16th and 17th century showcase are the work of the Spanish instrumentmaker Melchor Rodriguez and are what we now call "Renaissance shawms". This type of shawm has the same range as its medieval and popular counterparts but has a richer and warmer tone, thanks to the lengthening of the pipe, the addition of resonance holes and the wide bell. The Theatrum Instrumentorum by Michael Praetorius (Wolfenbüttel, 1619) describes the instrument. The plate XI of this encyclopedia gives a view on the complete family of shawms: small shawm (sopranino shawm), shawm (soprano shawm), alto shawms, tenor or basset shawm and finally bass shawm. The largest formats of shawms (bombardes) were mainly used until the middle of the 16th century. Then the lowest range will gradually be replaced by trombones and dulcians, more flexible to play. 


The pirouette

A piece of turned wood placed in the upper part of the shawm. It surrounds the base of the double reed. Its upper surface serves as a support for the lips, while the pressure is adjusted by the air contained in the cheeks. So the reed is not controlled at all by the lips and teeth. This way of playing is perfectly suited to the historical conditions of musical performances: musicians had to play long and loud to enhance banquets, balls and processions.

Left or right-handed?

In the Middle Age and Renaissance, there was no standard way to hold the instrument: with the right hand above or below. For the seventh hole (lower little finger), two holes were provided, on the right and left. The one that wasn't used was sealed with wax. The largest instruments received a key that could be used by both right and left little finger.

The shawm in the Baroque period

The musical aesthetic changed in the second half of the 17th century. Composers are interested in wind instruments that can blend with the strings in the orchestra. The Hotteterre, a family of instrument makers, developed a new model: the oboe. It will spread rapidly throughout Europe. Both instruments would continue to coexist for a while, but during the 18th century, the shawm disappeared from the world of art music.

Method for shawm

For musicians wishing to learn the instrument, there is a method written by Aline Hopchet. The first two parts (FR/NL) are published by Kreastion (Schoten). An English/German version is published by Cornetto Verlag. These books and the CD are available at the MIM bookshop.

Shawm, Melchor Rodriguez, Madrid, 1665-1700
Shawm, Melchor Rodriguez, Madrid, 1665-1700
Minstrels showcase, Mim
Michael Praetorius, Theatrum instrumentorum, Pl.XI
Michael Praetorius, Theatrum instrumentorum, pirouette
Idem, fontanelle, key protection box
Shawm trio with slide trumpet, Pinturichio, Siena, 1503
External Video
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